Circle of love, open our hearts. Circle of wisdom, enlighten our minds. Circle of healing, grant us new life in God. Amen.
When I was applying to attend seminary, I was asked to write an essay describing how a particular Bible verse or chapter influenced my call to ministry. Well, as one who didn’t grow up in the church, and had only a cursory knowledge of children’s Bible stories, I was a bit stumped. I asked my mother what her favorite verse was. And instead of just telling me, she found her Bible and opened it to First John, Chapter Four. I will never forget it. It was as if she were offering me a glimpse of a secretive spiritual truth, hidden in one of the Gnostic Gospels. She said, pointing, “Look, everything you need to know is in that sentence. God is love.”
This memory remains indelible because both my parents rejected organized religion and all of its trappings as soon as they could. They were raised in fundamentalist denominations, smack dab on the buckle of the Texas Bible Belt during the 40s and 50s. I can say with confidence that my mother’s instinctive beliefs about God did that mesh with what the Church was teaching. Religion, in her mind, had to be more than a mere personal salvation and a puritanical obsession with the petty sins of others. Fear of going to hell did not inspire her to be more loving, forgiving, or compassionate. She had been born a child of God, her factory settings had attuned her to John’s truth that fear has to do with punishment and that faith came from neither. What she discovered, late in her life, was that against the love-lessness of fear, the gospel actually proclaims the fearlessness of love. No longer did my mother have to placate God out of fear, or wallow in guilt when the thought of a sin might be coming on. After decades of searching and pining, she found a God of her own understanding. And it was a God of love.
With stunning brevity, the author of First John tells us who God is, and by definition, who God is not. God’s chosen self-definition is love. A divine love in the New Testament is expressed by the Greek word “agape.” God’s love is utterly gratuitous, extravagant. It is pure. An offering that expects nothing in return, which means it is spontaneous and unmotivated. And there is nothing we can do to earn it or be held from it. It just is. Sounds like grace, doesn’t it? What is so fascinating about this passage in First John is something I realized when preparing this sermon, is that for years I misinterpreted it, or at best, was a lazy reader. I assumed its theology was the same as what Jesus commands in the Gospels. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind. The second is this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And in that order. But First John begins with this mandate in Verse Seven. “Beloved, let us love one another.” He does not write, “Beloved, let us love God.” The complexity of this concept then, indicates that perfect love is not the love of human beings for God, but the love of human for each other. As you know, it’s much harder to love one’s enemy or anyone for whom we feel has no claim on us, than it is to love a mysterious, cosmic, and unseen God. And of course, underlying this scripture are the two great parallel Commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. These two are intractably linked. It is impossible to obey the first without obeying the second. Beloveds, my soul friends as John would call us, we are mandated to love the other, simply because that is what God does. You see, I have had this all wrong. For years now, I have concluded my prayers by saying, “Christ Jesus, help us to love you more. Or help me to love you more.” When I should have been praying, “Help us to love one another more.”
I think though, that the breathtaking beauty of this passage really hinges on Verse Nineteen. “We love because He first loved us.” I’m going to repeat it, “We love because He first loved us.” Think about that. God’s love birthed us into being. This love manifests as the Spirit, which quickens us into holy beings. Because we are birthed into love, by love incarnate, we become children of love, worthy of all love. It’s important though to note that this verse, “We love because God first loved us,” does not mean we love others; therefore, God must love us. For John, human love is always derivative of the source, God’s love. And my friends, this is exactly why I struggle with the doctrine of original sin. If the divine image of God and God’s love is coded into our factory settings, why then should we, in our purest essence as newborns, why would we be stained with sin in all its wretchedness? How can an innocent child be birthed from sin, when the Bible tells us that we are birthed from love? I love this story, that the Celtic Theologian John Philip Newell tells of the fourth century Celtic monk Pelagius, who was convinced that when we hold a child immediately after its birth, when we feel the softness and smell the sweetness of the baby skin, when we look into the baby’s eyes, we are seeing a being from a deeper place. We are seeing and smelling God. Pelagius believed that what is deepest in us is of God, not opposed to God.
You might have guessed, I’m more of a Pelagian than an Augustinian. And of course, an Episcopalian, because I can explore these questions with you and hopefully not be labeled a heretic. I know that we are born into a sinful world and I do not question our capacity for sin as human beings. But I do not think that we possess a “sin gene” as part of our DNA. I think my mother had it right. We are born from love into love, not from sin and shame. And as John tells us in the Tenth Verse, this is exactly why God gifted us with the ultimate sign of love, Jesus. The living love of God, given in the flesh to human beings to save us from ourselves. First John describes Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Well, as you might imagine, I’m not a big fan of substitutionary atonement theory either. I won’t go into the nitty gritty of why, since the Dean so beautifully during his February sermon did just that. But allow me to share his argument, and I quote, “If our God is the God of love, then love doesn’t need payment in order to forgive. Love doesn’t demand suffering and death in order to forgive. On the contrary, love forgives in spite of everything. Freely, completely, and without strings attached. Jesus’ suffering and death were not to be the price paid to forgive sins; they were the cost of love.” The one thing we cannot do is claim to love God while letting the dry rot of hatred or indifference toward the other consume us. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars. For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” This from our scripture.
The filmmaker Tyler Perry, he astounded viewers in a moving speech during last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony when he accepted the Humanitarian Award. He addressed the very essence of that verse, the Twentieth Verse of First John, Chapter Four. He began, “You know, when I set out to help someone, it is my intention to do just that. I’m not trying to do anything other than to meet somebody at their humanity. One time I was walking to my car and I see this woman coming up out of the corner of my eye. And I think, ‘She’s homeless, let me give her some money.’ I reach in my pocket and I’m about to give her some money, and she says, ‘Excuse me sir, do you have any shoes?’ This stopped me cold. Because I remember being homeless and having one pair of shoes, and they were bent at the heel. I take her into the studio. So, as we’re standing there in wardrobe, we find her these shoes, and I help her put them on, and I’m waiting for her to look up, and all this time she’s looking down. She finally looks up, and she’s got tears in her eyes. She says, ‘Thank you Jesus, my feet are off the ground.’ In that moment, I recall her saying to me, ‘I thought you would hate me for asking.’ But I’m thinking, ‘How can I hate you, when I used to be you?’” So then Perry spoke about his mother, who grew up in the Jim Crow south, grieving the murder of Emmett Till, and the Civil Rights boys, and the four little girls who died in the Birmingham Church bombing. “My mother taught me to refuse hate,” Perry said. “She taught me to refuse blanket judgement. I refuse to hate someone because they are Mexican, or because they are Black or white or LGBTQ. I refuse to hate someone because they are a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian.” Perry then dedicated his award to, “Anyone who wants to stand in the middle, where the healing happens. Anyone who wants to meet me in the middle, to refuse hate, to refuse blanket judgment, and to help lift someone’s feet off the ground. This one’s for you too.” Wow.
It was Howard Thurman who wrote that, “Hatred destroys the core of the life of the hater. Hatred bears deadly in bitter fruit. It is blind and non-discriminating and cannot be controlled once it is set in motion.” Please my beloveds, let us practice love. While our love will always be flawed, we must not hold back because of our fear and inadequacies. Act lovingly, if imperfectly. Remember there is no fear in love, because God’s perfect love casts out all fear. And to proclaim anything less than the heart of the universe as being love, is to betray the Gospel. This one’s for all of us. God is love. God is love, God is love, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!